The departure boards of the world’s airports have made for grim reading over the past year, bringing home the sheer impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the travel and tourism sector. As vaccines are rolled out worldwide, there is a glimmer of hope for the industry. But, according to Jerry Inzerillo, industry veteran and chief executive of Diriyah Gate Development Authority — a $20bn-plus giga-project aimed at restoring and reimagining the ancestral home of the original Saudi state — we are about to see a new wave of travel.

Having devoted more than 50 years to tourism, Mr Inzerillo has seen it all. “This is the one sector of the global economy that’s always proved resilient,” he says. “Last March, I thought it would be a very bumpy  six to 12 months. We’ve always overcome obstacles and we will do so again. But it’s turned out to be substantially more difficult than anyone thought.”

Advertisement

Optimistic mood

In spite of the pain of the crisis, Mr Inzerillo remains optimistic. “People definitely want to travel. [The post-pandemic world] will ignite a new wave of travel, but we may not go back to some of the trends that were building momentum before Covid-19.”

Mr Inzerillo believes that youth travel and women travelling together will both feature strongly in the new tourism landscape. “Authentic, cultural, heritage travel will come back in a very big way,” he adds. 

However, he thinks it will be a while before those aged over 55 will embark on trips of more than 10 hours. “Not knowing the medical infrastructure of counties is more of a concern if there’s a problem of how to get home,” he adds.

Travel changes

“It will probably take many years for people to get back to visiting multiple countries in a fixed period of time,” he adds. “People will go to one city, to one country, and stay longer. In the next two to five years, the average length of stay will go up a full day. In the top 30 travel destination countries, the average length of stay will go up three days.”

Mr Inzerillo points out that less mature tourism destinations have fared better than traditional favourites during the pandemic. He reveals that Saudi Arabia was opened to international tourism in September 2019 and was processing around 55,000 eVisas per week before the Covid-19 shutdown. “Countries that were just starting out, or had immature tourism profiles, weren’t hurt so much because they didn’t have as much ground to lose.”

Closer to home

Mr Inzerillo says his approach has been to implement a conservative marketing strategy of targeting the local market first, before widening it to regional and international markets. 

“The Gulf countries have boomed because their citizens stayed home. Our restaurants and hotel occupancy registered record levels. Saudis are one of the highest spenders outside their own country. Saudis have stayed home, and this has been true of the whole Gulf region.” 

Looking ahead, Mr Inzerillo says policy-makers have recognised the growth potential of tourism for local economies. “Most governments now have tourism as one of their top portfolios. In Saudi Arabia, the strategy is to take it from 3% to 10% of gross domestic product,” he explains.

“Governments have to focus on tourism strategies. They can’t ignore sustainability, socioeconomic inequality, the positivity of employment and the benefits of foreign currency exchange, and the goodwill that comes with tourism. Most heads of state now know they have to support their travel and airline industries, and get people to visit because these are the best generators of immediate employment.”

This article first appeared in the April/May print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.